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Facebook, Instagram Remove Chinese Accounts Over Fake 'Swiss Biologist' COVID-19 Origin Claims

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Facebook owner Meta Platforms said on Wednesday it had removed accounts used by an influence operation originating in China that promoted claims of a fake “Swiss biologist” saying the United States was interfering in the search for COVID-19’s origins.

Meta said in a report the social media campaign was “largely unsuccessful” and targeted English-speaking audiences in the United States and Britain and Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet.

Claims by “Swiss biologist” Wilson Edwards were widely quoted by Chinese state media in July. In August, several Chinese newspapers removed comments and deleted articles quoting him after the Swiss embassy in Beijing said it had found no evidence of him as a Swiss citizen.

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Meta said Facebook removed the Wilson Edwards account in August and has since removed 524 Facebook accounts, 20 Pages, four Groups and 86 Instagram accounts as part of its investigation. Such removals also take down content that these entities have posted.

“We…were able to link the activity to individuals in mainland China, including employees of a particular company in China, the Sichuan Silence Information Technology Company Limited, as well as some individuals associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies around the world,” Meta’s head of global threat disruption David Agranovich told Reuters.

Sichuan Silence Information Technology Co did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Chinese foreign ministry and internet regulator Cyberspace Administration of China also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Meta said it had not found any connection between Sichuan Silence Information Technology and the Chinese government.

Silence Information’s website describes itself as a network and information security company that provides network security services to China’s Ministry of Public Security activities and China’s CNCERT, the key coordination team for China’s cybersecurity emergency response.

On July 24, 10 hours after its creation, the “Wilson Edwards” Facebook account uploaded a post saying he had been informed the United States was seeking to discredit the qualifications of World Health Organization scientists working with China to probe the origins of COVID-19.

Meta said the account’s operators used virtual private network (VPN) infrastructure to conceal its origin and made efforts to give Edwards a rounded personality.

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The persona’s original post was initially shared and liked by fake Facebook accounts, and later forwarded by authentic users, most of which belonged to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies in over 20 countries, Meta said.

“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” the report said. Meta said it did not find evidence that the network gained any traction among authentic communities.

China’s state-run media, from China Daily to TV news service CGTN, cited the July post widely as evidence that US President Joe Biden’s administration was politicising the WHO. The administration had said the joint WHO-China investigation lacked transparency.

The origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 remains a mystery and a source of tension between China, the United States and other countries.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Meta Says Will Share More Political, Social-Issue Advertisements Targeting Data in Public Database

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Facebook owner Meta Platforms will share more data on targeting choices made by advertisers running political and social-issue ads in its public ad database, it said on Monday.

Meta said it would also include detailed targeting information for these individual ads in its “Facebook Open Research and Transparency” database used by academic researchers, in an expansion of a pilot launched last year.

“Instead of analysing how an ad was delivered by Facebook, it’s really going and looking at an advertiser strategy for what they were trying to do,” said Jeff King, Meta’s vice president of business integrity, in a phone interview.

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The social media giant has faced pressure in recent years to provide transparency around targeted advertising on its platforms, particularly around elections. In 2018, it launched a public ad library, though some researchers criticised it for glitches and a lack of detailed targeting data.

Meta said the ad library will soon show a summary of targeting information for social issue, electoral or political ads run by a page.

“For example, the Ad Library could show that over the last 30 days, a Page ran 2,000 ads about social issues, elections or politics, and that 40 percent of their spend on these ads was targeted to ‘people who live in Pennsylvania’ or ‘people who are interested in politics,’” Meta said in a blog post.

Meta said the additional information in the ad library will be added in July. It said the data for vetted researchers will be available at the end of May and will show information since August 2020.

The company has run various programmes with external researchers as part of its transparency efforts. Last year, it said a technical error meant flawed data had been provided to academics in its “Social Science One” project.

In 2021, the company said it had disabled the accounts of a group of New York University researchers studying political ads on its platform because of user privacy concerns.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Elon Musk-Twitter Deal Is a ‘Breath of Hope’, Says Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called Elon Musk’s proposed takeover of Twitter a “breath of hope” as the two met in Brazil on Friday, adding he hoped the US billionaire would help end the “lies” about his widely criticised stewardship of the Amazon rainforest.

Bolsonaro and Musk, the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, met to discuss rural Internet connectivity and monitoring of the Amazon. The meeting comes at a sensitive time for both men.

Bolsonaro faces an uphill battle to get re-elected in the October, and has become increasingly isolated on the global stage, while Musk was on Thursday accused of sexual harassment in a news report – an allegation he denies.

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Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist, has blasted major social media platforms for their efforts to combat disinformation, including taking down his baseless comments linking COVID-19 vaccines to developing AIDS. Musk, who Bolsonaro called a “legend of liberty,” has vowed to defend free speech on Twitter.

Bolsonaro has been globally condemned for advocating more mining and farming in the Amazon and for Brazil’s environmental backsliding. Recent satellite data show deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has surged to a 15-year high under Bolsonaro.

Speaking alongside Musk at an upscale hotel in the countryside near Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro hailed the billionaire’s bid for Twitter, saying “it was like a breath of hope.”

“We need, and are counting on Elon Musk for the Amazon to be known by all in Brazil and the world, to show … how we have protected it, and how much harm is caused by those who spread lies about that region,” he told a news conference.

Later, in a press conference without Musk, Bolsonaro gushed about meeting the US billionaire. “It’s the start of a relationship which I’m sure will soon end in marriage,” he said.

Bolsonaro added that Musk’s Twitter purchase would represent “the freedom of press that we always want and desire, total freedom, without limit,” he said.

Bolsonaro also said that he was making Brazil’s Alcântara space base near the equator available to Musk’s rockets.

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Musk tweeted on Friday afternoon that he aimed to discuss further monitoring of the rainforest and an effort to bring broadband internet to rural areas – a scheme that he had previously discussed with members of Bolsonaro’s government.

Musk was not asked about harassment allegations when he took questions after arriving in Sao Paulo, where he was also greeted by business leaders such as Telecom Italia Chief Executive Pietro Labriola and Banco BTG Pactual Chairman Andre Esteves.

Musk’s meeting with Bolsonaro, a longtime conservative firebrand who defends Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, is indicative of the right-ward drift of his personal politics. On Wednesday, he said he previously voted for Democrats, but will now vote for Republicans.

For Bolsonaro, who has worried international observers as many fear that he may refuse to hand over power if he loses the October election, Musk’s visit was a public relations coup.

Bolsonaro lost an ally when former US President Donald Trump lost his 2020 re-election bid, and has not spoken with US President Joe Biden since the Democrat took office.

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© Thomson Reuters 2022


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WhatsApp Request Account Inform Feature Rolling Out on Desktop: Report

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WhatsApp has reportedly started rolling out a beta update that lets users request their account information on WhatsApp desktop. The feature was initially introduced on Android and iOS to comply with EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Request Account Info feature is said to only be available after updating your WhatsApp desktop to the latest beta version. The feature seems to be rolling out slowly, and is said to currently only available to beta testers. WhatsApp earlier this week also began introducing free cloud-based API services in a push to get more businesses using the app. A recent report had also indicated that WhatsApp Premium, a subscription-based model, is being tested for WhatsApp Business.

As per a recent report by WhatsApp features tracker WABetaInfo, the social media app has started rolling out a beta update that lets users Request Account Info on WhatsApp desktop. The feature was limited to WhatsApp on Android and iOS till now. Users will be able to access the “Request Account Info on Desktop” feature only after updating their WhatsApp desktop beta to the latest – it has currently been spotted in v2.2219.3 beta, but was initially spotted in development in the v2.2204.1 beta version – though at time, it was not visible to testers. Even now, the report mentions that the feature may only be available to certain beta users.

The WhatsApp Request Account Info feature was introduced for Android and iOS in 2018 as a part the company’s compliance with the EU’s GDPR rules. When users request a report from WhatsApp, it gets ready in three days. However, users may have to wait for some more time before they are able to download it. The report will encompass details including all activity information, contacts device details, or privacy settings.

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In other news, WhatsApp this week announced it is also introducing free cloud-based API services in a push to get more businesses using the app. WhatsApp already has an API, or type of software interface, for businesses to connect their systems and engage in customer service chats on the service, which generates revenue for Meta.

A recent report had also indicated that WhatsApp Premium, a subscription-based model, is being tested for WhatsApp Business. Under this model, business accounts may choose to pay a certain sum for various features and capabilities. Reportedly, WhatsApp Business profile owners can also opt out of WhatsApp Premium and continue using the current version. The first mention of a subscription plan was in April when it was reported that the feature will allow businesses to link up to 10 devices after they subscribe to a plan.


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